Pádraig's short game has brought him a long way
Harrington's ball-striking is superb, but it was skill with the short clubs that set him apart in Portugal
Published 30/10/2016 | 17:00
Events in the Portugal Masters at Vilamoura last weekend brought to mind the words of Paul McGinley from more than 12 years ago when he, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke were the undisputed big three of Irish golf. With typical directness, McGinley asserted: "In terms of tournament success, the ability to score is far more important than the ability to hit a golf ball."
It was midway through the 2004 season, when Clarke (ninth) was no fewer than 26 places ahead of Harrington (35th) in the world rankings, and all three were on course to retain their Ryder Cup places at Oakland Hills. That was when McGinley said: "To my mind, Pádraig is the most talented of the three of us.
"Since I first got to know him as a 13-year-old kid, he has been blessed with a glorious short game which has never left him. It's a short game that is just to die for. Though Darren, in my opinion, is in a different league as a ball-striker, he has been denied that particular talent."
Given that both players were with the same management group (ISM) at the time, it was inevitable that the comments would reach Clarke's ears. Sure enough, when we met shortly afterwards at a tournament in the US, he made a point of seeking me out and saying with a half-smile: "I believe I'm now Ireland's second-best player."
Then, without waiting for a response, he went on: "Let Pádraig and myself head for that practice ground over there, and we'll see who's the better ball-striker." It is doubtful if even Harrington would have argued with him, but that was to miss the crucial distinction McGinley had drawn between ball-striking and scoring.
An analysis of the main statistics from the Portugal Masters emphasises the point. It tells us that the most accurate driver of the ball over the four days was the Finn, Mikko Korhonen, who finished third. We're also informed that the longest driver in the field was Nicolas Colsaerts with average hits of 318.3 yards. He finished 50th. Leader of greens in regulation was Andy Sullivan, who finished second.
When it came, however, to the category once famously described by Christy O'Connor Jnr as the 'money shots', Harrington reigned supreme. He led putts per round with an average of 25, or 100 for the 72 holes. And he also led putts per greens hit in regulation, with an average of 1.539. "It's probably the best I've hit mid-range putts in my life," he said.
Even more revealing in terms of the short game overall is that, having missed 25 greens in regulation over the four days, he needed only 51 strokes from those wayward positions to complete the holes in question. In other words, he got up and down in an average of two strokes on every occasion bar one - albeit with a chip-in at the 11th last Sunday.
All of which suggests that whenever Harrington manages to somehow reawaken this remarkable gift, he becomes a very dangerous rival. In this context, while Sullivan was sitting anxiously in the recorder's area waiting for Harrington to complete the final hole, you wondered if he was really aware of the menace behind those staring eyes.
Sullivan was a 21-year-old run-of-the-mill amateur when the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale marked Harrington's last important success on European terrain. That was when his long-time caddie, Ronan Flood, was prompted to remark: "Though you obviously need certain things to happen, Pádraig is good enough to win any tournament in which he tees it up."
Those of us who had watched him in his pomp, were fairly confident of what would happen on last Sunday's 72nd hole, where he faced a greenside up-and-down for victory. The chip certainly wouldn't be a problem and there was enough evidence from earlier on the homeward journey that the blade would finish the job.
Yet the international tournament scene is replete with memorable instances of star performers, in the twilight of great careers, coming close to victory only to falter on the greens. Recalling his first US Masters appearance in 1967, Joe Carr told of the excitement generated by 54-year-old Ben Hogan on a homeward 30 for a third-round 66. Then, how a balky blade delivered a crushing 77 on the final day.
More recently, there was the example of Tom Watson in the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry where, by his own admission, a poor putt on the final green deprived him of an historic triumph at 59.
Observers can easily overlook the importance of the short game, simply because it lacks the spectacle of booming drives and piercing iron shots. I remember the great English amateur, Peter McEvoy, describing his shock on first confronting the special short-game talents of County Louth's Mark Gannon. "I wondered how this guy ever managed to become an international - until we got close to the green," he said.
Another Englishman, Luke Donald, had similar memories. Recalling a defeat to Jody Fanagan in the Home Internationals at Burnham and Berrow in 1997, Donald recalled: "Jody was a nice player, a very straight hitter, not like a lot of Irish players, who tend to be quite quirky. They have a low ball flight and don't always have perfect swings, yet they know how to get the ball in the hole. I remember my Irish opponents being very hard competitors who would fight to the end." He might have been talking about Harrington, the quirky amateur.
Christy O'Connor Snr was more impressed with quality ball-striking. At the time of McGinley's comments, Himself said: "The best swinger of the lot of them is Darren Clarke, who has magnificent rhythm and control, and he's swinging so much within himself, like [Ernie] Els.
"Harrington has also worked very hard. He's a very cool customer and he'll die if he doesn't do well. I worry that maybe he's too intense."
Interestingly, O'Connor was 45, the same age as Harrington is now, when he gained the biggest win of his career - the John Player Classic, which carried a world-record top prize of £25,000 at Hollinwell in 1970. But he was also acutely aware of having missed out on a lot more, including the Open Championship, through frailty with the blade.
His last serious Open challenge was as a 48-year-old at Troon in 1973.
"I remember hoping that Neil Coles [who finished third] would win," he said. "I played with Jack Nicklaus on the last day, which was one of the best ball-striking rounds I've ever had. Tee to green, I reckon I was striking the ball as well as Jack, but he shot 65 to my 73. The difference was mainly on the greens."
For the record, Nicklaus finished fourth behind Tom Weiskopf that day and O'Connor was tied seventh.
O'Connor needn't have worried about Harrington. Behind that seeming anxiety, he has retained an unquenchable optimism coupled with a profound love of the game. This goes some way towards explaining how he and bagman Flood have been together 12 years, since the one-time junior pal at Stackstown GC took leave of absence from his job as an assistant manager at AIB headquarters in Ballsbridge to join the golfing circus.
Such relationships speak volumes about a player's competitive temperament. When things go wrong for a tournament golfer, the caddie is often the first to suffer, either through endless whingeing, or being directly blamed for his employer's shortcomings. On the other hand, lengthy partnerships generally reflect an accepting attitude of the torment which golf can so readily inflict.
From the experience of having sought comments from him in the most trying circumstances, I invariably found Harrington to be wonderfully accepting - and a brutally demanding game has now chosen to reward him for that acceptance.
His has been one of the most heart-warming stories of Irish sport. It's as if he cannot credit his good fortune, and nobody is going to convince him that there won't be further victories down the line.
Which you wouldn't dare bet against, so long as the putter remains his friend.
Dr Sheahan paved the way for Shane
While tension built during the final round of the Irish Open at Baltray in 2009, one television viewer knew better than most the pressure Shane Lowry was enduring.
Dr David Sheahan was also a 22-year-old amateur at Royal Dublin back in 1962 - where he too gained the distinction of beating a professional field to capture the Jeyes Tournament.
As it happened, the Dublin medical student and member of Grange GC did it with a decisive putt of no more than a foot, just as Lowry would do.
All of which was inevitably brought to mind by his passing last week.
Irish Golf magazine later described it as "a new chapter in golfing history" under the heading 'The Amazing Mr Sheahan'.
When prompted, 47 years on, to jog his memory regarding those events, he gave a typically modest chuckle and remarked: "I thought that had all been washed away at Baltray."
Then, in his capacity as the 2009 president of Grange GC, he added generously: "I was just delighted he [Lowry] won. My memory of winning the Jeyes is that it came upon me all of a sudden, you might say."
Entered from University College Dublin, he carded admirably consistent rounds of 69, 72, 72, 69 for an aggregate of 282 to beat the leading professional, South Africa's Dennis Hutchinson, by a stroke. Christy O'Connor was two strokes further back.
Born in Southsea, England, of Irish parents, he moved to Dublin as a child and went on to win the Irish Amateur Close Championship on three occasions. Other successes included the Boyd Quaich Trophy university tournament at St Andrews in 1962.
At representative level, Dr Sheahan gained Walker Cup honours in 1963 and played 54 matches for Ireland between 1961 and 1970.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.
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